China’s herbal medicine woman who won Nobel Medicine Prize

China’s herbal medicine woman who won Nobel Medicine Prize

Friday, October 9, 2015 7:49 am

Tu Youyou: blazes trail in China

Tu Youyou: blazes trail in China

She is 85 years old. She is not a member of Chinese Academy of Sciences. She does not have a university doctorate. But pharmacologist Tu Youyou, has won this year’s Nobel prize in medicine for her work in discovering the most effective anti-malaria drug, Artemisinin.

Tu shares this year’s award with Dr William Campbell, from Ireland, and Dr Satoshi Omura, from Japan, who were also awarded for their work against parasitic diseases.

Tu, who is the first Chinese national to receive a Nobel Prize for science, made the breakthrough in the 1970s, at the height of China’s Cultural Revolution, but her role in the fight against malaria remained little known until just a few years ago.

Tu Youyou (2nd R) speaks during a seminar celebrating her winning the 2015 Nobel Prize for Physiology or Medicine in Beijing

Tu Youyou (2nd R) speaks during a seminar celebrating her winning the 2015 Nobel Prize for Physiology or Medicine in Beijing

In May 1967, Chairman Mao initiated a secret drug discovery project, known as Project 523, to search for a malaria cure. The project was launched in response to a request from the North Vietnamese government whose soldiers, engaged in jungle warfare, were being killed by malaria in greater numbers than by American soldiers.

During the first few years Project 523 focused on developing a modern synthetic cure for malaria but yielded no results. The project then shifted its focus towards traditional medicines and that is when Dr Tu, who was a researcher at the Academy of Traditional Chinese Medicine in Beijing, became involved. In the course of her research, Dr Tu began examining the properties of wormwood after reading a 4th Century Chinese text titled, “Emergency Prescriptions Kept Up One’s Sleeve”. This led Dr Tu and her team to the discovery that artemisinin, a compound extracted from wormwood was highly effective in treating malaria.

Artemisinin remains the most effective treatment for malaria, and artemisinin-based combination therapies (ACTs) are recommended by the World Health Organization as the first-line treatment for malaria. Dr Tu’s discovery has helped save millions of lives in Asia and Africa and many believe that recognition of her contribution to global healthcare is long overdue.

Tu’s Nobel triumph has ignited a reflection in China about the place of traditional medicine.

Most Chinese doctors are confident in the future of Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM), a survey has revealed.

Of the 874 doctors polled in a survey by Xinhua and the China Association of Chinese Medicine (CACM), 85.8 percent expressed strong faith in the future of TCM.

Those polled were among the 48,000 doctors trained to improve medical services for ordinary people in an official program launched by CACM in late 2012.

Also, 79.7 percent of the respondents agreed they would support a decision by their children or relatives to work in the TCM field.

However, the survey showed that TCM was threatened by a lack of training and funding, Western medicine and an aversion to using modern processes to produce TCM.

“Institutions should begin to use technology , this is the most urgent matter at the moment,” Wu Zhengyu, a doctor from the eastern province of Jiangsu noted.

*Condensed from a report by Daniel Maxwell at


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